Lacklustre start to Busan film fest

The directors of Septet: The Story Of Hong Kong (from left): Sammo Hung, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, Ann Hui and Patrick Tam.
The directors of Septet: The Story Of Hong Kong (from left): Sammo Hung, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, Ann Hui and Patrick Tam. PHOTO: MEDIA ASIA FILM/FACEBOOK

BUSAN • Asia's biggest annual film festival started in South Korea yesterday at a fraction of its usual scale, but some movie fans will still be able to attend screenings despite the coronavirus forcing many events online.

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) usually sees a host of stars and industry players from Asia and elsewhere descend on the port city for 10 days of critical consideration and financial deal-making.

But strict conditions imposed this year because of the pandemic mean there will be no opening ceremony, red-carpet parades, after-parties or outdoor fan events.

The fact it is taking place at all, however, is a bonus, as many international festivals have gone online-only and some, such as Cannes, have been cancelled altogether.

This year marks the festival's 25th anniversary and comes after South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's historic Oscar win for the dark comedy Parasite (2019) in February - the first time a foreign-language film has won top accolades.

About 190 movies will be shown at this year's festival and only once each, compared with the typical 300-odd films played multiple times - an 80 per cent cut in total screenings.

Those attending will have to wear masks, while social distancing will be enforced by making available only a quarter of theatre seats.

"We are doing our very best to offer what's most essential while following Covid-19 safety measures," BIFF programme director Nam Dong-chul said.

"We think what's most important about film festivals is to screen movies at movie theatres, as cinema is an art form that requires big screens."

Organisers have scheduled about 45 public screening talks - also far fewer than normal - but featuring only South Korean film-makers and actors.

South Korea imposes a strict two-week quarantine on most arrivals, making short visits impractical, so organisers have not invited foreigners - although some will participate online.

Among 70 world premieres this year is the opening film Septet: The Story Of Hong Kong, a multi-director anthology that pays tribute to the territory from the 1950s to the present.

Directed by Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Johnnie To, Yuen Wo Ping, Sammo Hung and the late Ringo Lam, the movie honours the golden age of Hong Kong cinema - from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The territory was once the regional cinematic powerhouse, producing as many as 200 films a year that were devoured by cinemagoers across Asia and beyond. But since then, the city's movie studios have gone into decline, eclipsed by flashier and wealthier rivals in China and South Korea.

"It was an era of 'one hundred flowers blooming' - the free expression of art - that nurtured numerous movie talents," production company Media Asia Film Hong Kong said in a statement.

Most BIFF components - including judging, press conferences, film and project markets and discussion forums - will still be held during the festival, but online.

"It will certainly be a different festival this year," Dr Jason Bechervaise, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University, said.

"Had we not been in this situation, the festival would no doubt have a celebratory atmosphere given the success of Parasite and the subsequent attention the South Korean film industry has had."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2020, with the headline 'Lacklustre start to Busan film fest'. Subscribe